Researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, focused on Iran and Bahrain.
2011 is shaping up to be an historic year in the Middle East and North Africa with the populist uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the massive street protests across the region. Libya, Bahrain and Iran are the latest countries to be hit by a wave of popular protests. While President Obama has openly criticized Iran’s crackdown on protesters, he has said nothing critical about Bahrain, a close U.S. ally, where two protesters have been killed since Monday. We speak with Human Rights Watch researcher Faraz Sanei. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: 2011 is shaping up to be an historic year in the Middle East and North Africa with the populist uprisings in Tunisia, then Egypt, and the massive street protests that are occurring across the region. Libya, Bahrain, Iran are the latest countries to be hit by a wave of popular protest.
Demonstrations erupted in the Libyan city of Benghazi overnight. Online reports indicate two people died, many were injured. A nationwide day of protest is set to take place in Libya tomorrow.
In Bahrain, anti-government protests have entered their third day. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, making it a key strategic ally for the United States.
Meanwhile, in Iran, tens of thousands of people took to the streets Monday in the largest protests since the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2009. At least two protesters died, several were injured, as security forces used tear gas, pepper spray, batons, in attempt to disperse the crowds. Many protesters were detained. Iranian lawmakers denounced Monday’s protests and called for the execution of the two top opposition leaders and former presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. On Tuesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the opposition protests are, quote, "going nowhere" and promised to punish their organizers. Barack Obama responded critically to the Iranian government’s position.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: While President Obama openly criticized Iran as cracking down on protesters, he said nothing critical about Bahrain, a close U.S. ally, where two protesters have been killed since Monday.
To discuss the situation in Iran and Bahrain, we are joined by Faraz Sanei. He is a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has been closely monitoring events in both countries.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Faraz. Explain, first, Bahrain.
FARAZ SANEI: Well, as you mentioned, there were protests on Monday, called for by the youth of Bahrain, most of whom are believed to — most of the people who are believed to have called for the protests are Shia, although there are also Sunnis who have joined in the protests. And they called for a day of rage. And this is unfortunately nothing new in Bahrain. We have actually seen, over the past several years, lots of disturbances and riots, but it hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention. And because of the recent developments in the Middle East, I think the youth in Bahrain, as in many other places, have been — you know, really, it’s been uplifting for them to see what has happened in Egypt, what has happened in Tunisia, and they have called for a day of rage, or they called for a day of rage. It became viral on Facebook, on social media sites, on Twitter.
A lot of the opposition groups, actually, in Bahrain, didn’t initially support or come out in support of the day of rage protests in Bahrain, although they have lots of problems with the government, lots of grievances, but we saw that, in fact, people did come out, people did demonstrate on Monday. And unfortunately, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have documented a violent crackdown on protests — what we believe, for the most part, to be peaceful protests — by the police and an excessive use of force, which unfortunately has left two demonstrators dead.
AMY GOODMAN: What about this issue of President Obama speaking out very clearly about cracking down on protests in Iran, but Bahrain, which is a U.S. military ally — and we have a base there — not having the same kind of comments?
FARAZ SANEI: It’s a good issue that you bring up. I mean, Human Rights Watch has been concerned about the fact that, you know, things in Bahrain have actually gotten quite, quite worse in the past year or two. In September, in August and in September of last year, there were 23 individuals who were arrested and are now being put on trial for terrorism charges. And we believe that a lot of it has to do with them actually speaking out against the government. There has been really a rollback of reform in Bahrain that we have seen.
But we don’t see a lot of public commentary from the U.S. State Department and from the U.S. government criticizing the Bahraini government. And we have been rather disappointed that we haven’t seen this. We believe that perhaps in private the U.S. government is having talks with the Bahraini government, especially regarding the 23 individuals who were arrested, regarding the crackdown on peaceful protesters and other issues in Bahrain. But again, we are asking for a more public position from the U.S. government, because they actually have a lot of sway in terms of what happens in Bahrain. They don’t have that necessarily in Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the U.S. presence there?
FARAZ SANEI: As you mentioned, the U.S. Fifth Fleet is there. The U.S. government — and, actually, not only the U.S. government, but also European — the U.S.’s European allies have strong links, military links, with the government of Bahrain. And, you know, Bahrain is considered to be a very, very close ally and an important ally in the Persian Gulf region to the United States and its allies.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what’s happening in Iran right now.
FARAZ SANEI: As you mentioned, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Karroubi, on February the 5th, called for public protests in — officially in support of the popular movements in Egypt and in Tunisia. And after that, there were a series of events that took place. There were about 30 individuals who were part of opposition groups in Iran who were arrested, including bloggers and journalists. The government essentially said, "We are not going to issue a permit for these demonstrations," which were planned on Monday, the same day that the Bahrain demonstrations were planned. And the opposition said, you know, "According to Article 27 of the Iranian constitution, we are actually allowed to go and protest, and we don’t necessarily need a permit for that. The Iranian constitution grants us the right to assemble freely, as long as we do it peacefully." And the people of Iran, many of the people of Iran, heeded the call of Karroubi and of Mousavi and actually went out into the streets. And it was the largest public display and public protest in Iran since the huge crackdowns after the June 2009 elections, to the point where a lot of analysts are now saying that it shows that the Green Movement is actually still alive in Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Faraz, talk about what happened in the parliament, the calling for the execution of the two opposition leaders, Karroubi and Mousavi —
FARAZ SANEI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — by the parliamentarians.
FARAZ SANEI: Yes. Yesterday there were parliamentarians who actually interrupted a speech by Larijani, who is the speaker of the parliament in Iran, and chanted slogans calling for the execution of Karroubi and Mousavi, who are the two leaders who are most associated with the Green Movement. There are other individuals, like Mohammad Khatami, who is the former president of Iran. He also has been attacked quite a bit.
But I will say that this is not necessarily something new. Since the June 2009 protests, we have seen a lot of harassment and pressure against Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi. They have essentially been under house arrest at different times. Their movements have been monitored. And, in fact, the Basij and conservative forces in Iran have continuously called for their prosecution, and some have called for their execution. Now we see the voices are a lot louder, as you mentioned, in parliament, and there is this wave of individuals now really publicly calling for them to be prosecuted and put on trial.
AMY GOODMAN: Mousavi under house arrest?
FARAZ SANEI: Mousavi, as far as we know — I don’t have the latest information, but during the day of the protest on Monday, both Karroubi and Mousavi were essentially under house arrest. Security forces did not allow them to leave their homes and join the protesters.
AMY GOODMAN: An increased attack on lawyers, as well?
FARAZ SANEI: Yeah. I mean, this is something that doesn’t necessarily correlate with the protests. The increasing attack on lawyers is something that has been going on for several years now. But in 2010, we saw an increase in the prosecution of lawyers for what we believe to essentially be them talking about the cases of their clients.